Paula Fummey cuts an unusual figure for a soul singer. We met first at a large charity concert in Govanhill. Next to me on the front row, a wheel chair suddenly arrived. Seated in it was a large, very imposing, black woman with a huge blue St. Johnstone football scarf round her neck. She told me she was down for the concert, and I assumed she was one of the audience. Then at the very end, the compere announced: “and now tonight’s star attraction—the Scary Saint lady herself, Paula Fummey!” The spotlights went on, and she sang.
When she speaks, she has a broad throaty Perthshire accent, but the sweet voice that came from her with its mixture of blues, funk, and soul transfixed the audience. By the time she sang “Stand By Me”, the audience were indeed all standing, clapping, singing and calling for more. Where did she learn such an extraordinary command of music?
Her story begins in a large chaotic family — her father from Ghana, her mother from Dundee, living in the city of Perth. She described this as a very white place in which she was only the fifth black child to be born. Her family stood out in many ways: “For a start, there weren’t many mixed families, so that was unusual, all the black children knew each other. My mum separated from my father when I was one, she had four children, but she wasn’t married, that was a bad thing in those days. I have got sixteen half and step brothers and sisters. We have got white, through brown, to black, and all these shades as well, it’s a United Nations.”
She started to sing in primary school, but when she got to high school, she encountered very severe racism: “When I went to the secondary school, I had a racist music teacher, so I never got chosen to sing for anything, and he told me he was gonna tan my black bottom, if it wasn’t tanned enough.”
The breakthrough came when she joined a Gospel choir in a church when she was 26. Her vocal talent was immediately spotted, and she was twice chosen to sing solo on BBC Television’s “Songs of Praise”. She lived in Europe, singing in French and then moved back to Scotland. Soon after, she was contacted by the director of the New Scottish Choir Orchestra, and asked to sing solo at a large concert being planned for Glasgow. Despite her talent, she was still consumed by nerves: “Well, I nearly died, because this was in the City Halls in Glasgow for about a thousand people.” There then followed a long career singing swing and jazz in the New Scottish Big Band.
When all was going so well, she was struck with serious illness. Diseases which appeared in her spine and bones meant she had to stop her work and move around with a wheelchair. But she is a woman with extraordinary spirit. As she says, she started the first girls’ football team at her school, and she is now still a strong campaigner fighting for disabled rights and against the bedroom tax. Her strength comes from her family, its humour and the constant problems that she had to overcome: “All my life I have been not normal. I’m not from a two parent family, so all my life, I’ve been different, and I think, living in that, dealing with it, you just become the person you are, because you always have to meet challenges.”
And the biggest challenge for her was colour and the attitudes of people around her. She described how strange it is to be born and grown up in Scotland and yet be told to go back to where she is from: “Back in the 70s, there was lots of racism around. When I was 19, I visited Ghana, so I connected with the black side of my family. When I was physically in the black culture, it made things real to me. It feels strange being Scottish, but being told to go back to where you are from, when I was always from Scotland.”
And the humour of her family gave her strength: “My brother is a standup comedian for example, we always laugh. I like people, I like having fun, why would I change that just because my circumstance has changed? You just have to keep going.”
And still she sings, her talents keep her in constant demand. Weddings, concerts, and benefit events. She was also working for Kidney Research after the death of her mother: “My mum died of kidney failure, and I was contacted by Kidney Research UK, so I’ve been singing for fundraising. I’ve been doing things like that, anything, people might ask me to sing in church or whatever, people ask me to sing, I just sing.”
And she does, like a funky nightingale.